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Doctors puzzled by Saunders' arm

Devil Rays pitcher released from hospital and faces uncertain future.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- They don't know how it happened.

The day after the apparent end of Tony Saunders' pitching career, Devil Rays medical personnel said they don't know why Saunders broke his left arm for the second time in 15 months.

"I wish I knew," team orthopedic physician Koco Eaton said Friday. "He had every test done to make sure the bone was healed, and the bone was healed. He wouldn't have been able to pitch as much as he had if the bone wasn't healed. How it happened again, I don't know. I can't even venture a guess."

The injury Thursday was similar to the original break on May 26, 1999 -- a spiral fracture of the humerus, the large bone between the shoulder and elbow. Thursday's fracture was just above the first break, virtually adjacent, Eaton said. The original break showed a downward spiral; this one went up.

Saunders broke the bone Thursday pitching for the St. Petersburg Devil Rays in his fifth minor-league start. The injury occurred in the third inning against the Clearwater Phillies. With his career as a major-league pitcher in all likelihood over, Saunders, still groggy from pain medication, was released from Bayfront Medical Center on Friday facing an uncertain future. He is scheduled to address the media this morning at Tropicana Field, then fly via private jet to his Baltimore-area home.

General manager Chuck LaMar visited Saunders on Friday morning and said the 26-year-old was "handling what happened about as well as could be expected" and seemed resigned to what lay ahead.

"I think he knows and realizes he may never pitch again in the major leagues," LaMar said.

If Saunders decides to stay in baseball, LaMar said the Rays will find a place for him.

"We'd be honored to have him in some capacity in our organization for a long time to come," LaMar said. "He has a passion for the game, he loves being around the players, and I think he would have a tremendous impact on some of our young players."

Eaton spoke with several members of the Rays medical team, including noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and trainer Jamie Reed, and said there were no warning signs of another break.

Saunders was X-rayed, scanned and examined extensively before being allowed to start pitching in minor-league games, and the doctors were convinced not only the arm was healed but at the fracture point it was stronger than before.

Saunders made four rehab starts, though he complained of a tired arm in the last two. Eaton examined Saunders after each outing and said the fatigue was not a warning sign. "He had some muscle soreness, just like spring training," Eaton said. "But it was all soreness down in the muscles."

The bone showed no signs of disease or weakness, leaving doctors to wonder if the second break, like the first, was simply the result of the torque and strain of pitching.

"It's one of those things where I've kind of been kicking myself, asking myself a million questions what we could have done differently," Eaton said. "Should we have X-rayed him more? I've asked myself that every minute today, but I just don't know. I wish I was smart enough to figure it out."

In Baltimore on Friday, manager Larry Rothschild and the players were still saddened and shocked by the news, especially considering how confident Saunders was about returning to the major leagues next month.

"Everybody here was so impressed with how hard he's worked to come back," catcher John Flaherty said. "Everything had been looking so good that in my mind the possibility of this happening again was non-existent."

"Physically and mentally, he was just cocky enough to know he was going to come back," closer Roberto Hernandez said. "That alone will tell you what kind of drive he had. He had me believing about it by watching him throw on the side." Eaton said Saunders should be commended for his effort.

"When you think of Tony, the first word you think of should be courage," Eaton said.

- Staff writer Bruce Lowitt contributed to this report.

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